Biden returns U.S. to UN Human Rights Council after Trump, seeks to regain voting rights, rejoins commission on South Sudan, opposes China

President Joseph R. Biden Jr. has returned the United States to the United Nations Human Rights Council, more than two years after former President Donald J. Trump removed the U.S. from a voting seat in the Council.

This week, the U.S. attended its first session since the break and announced a 2022 candidacy to become a voting member once again.

President Biden has pledged to defend democracy and human rights around the world, including the rights of LGBTQ+ people, and the move to rejoin the Council is a step toward achieving that pledge.

On Wednesday, the U.S. Department Of State highlighted key takeaways from the 46th Session of the UN Human Rights Council, which held from February 22 to March 23.

Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken meets with President Joseph R. Biden, Jr., Vice President Kamala D. Harris, National Security Advisor to the President Jake Sullivan, and National Security Advisor to the Vice President Nancy McEldowney at the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C., on February 4, 2021. [State Department Photo by Ron Przysucha 
Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken meets with President Joseph R. Biden, Jr., Vice President Kamala D. Harris, National Security Advisor to the President Jake Sullivan, and National Security Advisor to the Vice President Nancy McEldowney at the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C., on February 4, 2021. [State Department Photo by Ron Przysucha

The United States opposed a resolution led by China that seemed to prioritize government rights over individual rights. Despite the U.S. objection and without voting rights in the Council, the resolution passed by a vote of 26 in favor, 15 against, and 6 abstentions.

Other key outcomes focused on Africa, co-sponsorship for several resolutions, and two joint statements, also signing into 12 thematic or country-specific joint statements.

For instance, the United States rejoined the core group on South Sudan, comprised of the United Kingdom, Norway, and Albania, to renew the mandate of the Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan for another year.

“The Commission is the only mechanism currently collecting and preserving evidence of violations of international humanitarian law and human rights abuses to promote accountability and address human rights and transitional justice issues in South Sudan from a holistic perspective,” the State Department said. “We stand ready, as ever, to work with the government of South Sudan and other regional partners to improve the lives of the South Sudanese people.”

The United States also co-sponsored resolutions on Freedom of Religion or Belief; Albinism; Human Rights, Democracy, and the Rule of Law; Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment; Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights; Privacy; and Least Developed Countries and Small Island Developing States Trust Fund decision.

The United States led two joint statements and signed onto 12 thematic or country-specific joint statements. The United States led a Joint Statement on Racism, securing signatures from 156 countries, including all Africa Group members. The joint statement called on governments to take steps to address racism and racial discrimination and examine and eliminate practices and policies that marginalize members of ethnic and racial minority groups. 

Fifty-three countries also co-sponsored a U.S.-led Joint Statement on Human Rights Accountability. The joint statement made it clear that state sovereignty cannot be used as a shield to prevent scrutiny from the Council and that states continue to be responsible for protecting human rights.

The United States also joined statements on Human Rights and COVID-19 Measures; Protection of Journalists; Ending Death Penalty as a Punishment for Blasphemy and Apostacy; and Human Rights of Migrants.

The Human Rights Council adopted the Universal Periodic Review outcome of the United States, the culmination of a multi-year process reviewing the U.S. domestic human rights record. The United States accepted 280 out of 347 recommendations it received from other UN Member States. Acting DRL Assistant Secretary Lisa Peterson delivered remarks outlining the U.S. approach to the recommendations, further explaining the Biden Administration’s priorities on racial justice, nondiscrimination, migration, climate change, and the COVID-19 response.

Kristi Pelzel is a Senior White House correspondent for Today News Africa in Washington D.C. Kristi also covers the US Department of State and the United Nations. She holds a master's degree from Georgetown University.

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